Mold-A-Rama Exhibit to Open at Museum of Science & Industry

Chicago, Illinois – Tuesday, November 1, A.D. 2022 (All Saints Day) – A Mold-A-Rama™ exhibit will open at the Kenneth C. Griffin Museum of Science and Industry (M.S.I.) on Thursday, November 3, A.D. 2022.  As I mentioned in an article in September about the M.S.I. auctioning off items from the Circus exhibit and Zeph the animatronic burro from All Aboard the Silver Streak (the old Burlington Zephyr exhibit) the Mold-A-Rama™ exhibit will occupy the space formerly occupied by the Circus in the East Gallery on the Lower Level of the M.S.I.  The exhibit, which seems to be named Mold-A-Rama™ based on the latest M.S.I. map, will be open for approximately a year, through the autumn of 2023. Update: The M.S.I. has now revealed the name of the exhibit: Mold-A-Rama™: Molded for the Future.

In a press release, the M.S.I. stated, “The exhibit features a collection of popular, rare and experimental Mold-A-Rama souvenirs from the past with their quirky colors, designs and, of course, the smell.”  A spokeswoman referred to the “signature smell.” 

The M.S.I. added, “Guests can expand their collection by taking home their own colorful souvenirs from over eight machines featured in the exhibit and around the Museum.  Featured molds for creation are the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Monorail, one of the first molds ever created, and the MSI Robot, featured during the Robot Revolution exhibition.”

A Mold-A-Rama™ vending machine uses an injection molding process to manufacture small, hollow waxy plastic sculptures on-demand that children use as toys and adults keep as souvenirs.  In 2017, I wrote a comprehensive history of Mold-A-Rama™ machines and the two companies to bear the name Mold-A-Rama, Inc., along with an explanation of how the machines work, and identified all the organizations I could document operating Mold-A-Rama™ machines at that time. I will recap pertinent details here.  To simplify matters, I will use the abbreviation M-A-R when referring to the machines.

The original Mold-A-Rama, Inc. manufactured the M-A-R machines and was headquartered in Chicago.  The new Mold-A-Rama, Inc. is the largest operator of M-A-R machines and is headquartered in west suburban Brookfield, Illinois.

In 1937, inventor J.H. (“Tike”) Miller first started making figures when he found it difficult to replace a broken infant Jesus from a crèche (nativity scene) when he went back to the department store.[1]  Consequently, he and his wife started to make and paint plaster figures in their basement.[2] Shortly, they began to sell plaster figures in novelty shops.[3] 

I do not know if he ever finished the book, much less got it published, but in 2013 Ken Glennon was writing a book he intended to entitle “Dimestore Dynasty of J.H. Miller,” and he visited Quincy, Illinois, where Miller’s factory was located and Quincy Herald-Whig’s Don O’Brien interviewed him.  Glennon explained that The J.H. Miller Company was located in Chicago until Miller moved his family and his business to Quincy, Illinois (a town on the opposite end of the state, on the Mississippi River).[4] 

Tike Miller’s father was an executive with Kresge (which evolved into Kmart) and helped ensure Miller’s porcelain figures wound up on store shelves.[5]  Germany was the leading source of nativity scenes in the whole world, but, of course, during the Second Great World War, the American market was cutoff, and The J.H. Miller Company was perfectly poised to soon become the largest American manufacturer of nativity scenes.[6]  The J.H. Miller Company retained this position for several years after the war’s conclusion.[7]

In 1955, The J.H. Miller Company transitioned from the manufacture of plaster figures to the manufacture of waxy polyethylene figures using plastic mold injection technology, which was less expensive than plaster casting and allowed Miller to experiment with and enlarge his line of figures.[8]  These were dinosaurs, jungle animals, aliens, and, of course, Christmas figurines.[9]  The Earth Invaders Miller manufactured then are now called “Miller Aliens” by collectors. [10]   Regrettably, in 1959, The J.H. Miller Company went bankrupt. [11]  

Subsequently, Tike Miller sold the technology to Automatic Retailers of America, Inc.  He worked with the company to develop Mold-A-Rama™ vending machines that manufactured waxy souvenirs for twenty-five cents.  A.R.A. introduced the M-A-R vending machine at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, the Century 21 Exposition.[12]  The M-A-R sculptures produced at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair included a model of the Seattle Space Needle, a model of the Seattle Center Monorail, a Budai (also known as Hotei or Laughing Buddha), and a three-dimensional Century 21 Exposition logo.[13]

A.R.A.’s Mold-A-Rama, Inc. subsidiary manufactured M-A-R vending machines in Chicago.[14]  Between 1962 and ‘69, Mold-A-Rama, Inc. manufactured approximately 200 M-A-R machines.[15] 

Mold-A-Rama™ machines made dinosaur figures for the Sinclair Oil Corporation’s Sinclair Dinoland exhibit at New York City’s second World’s Fair, EXPO New York (1964-65). [16]   At Dinoland, M-A-R machines produced seven kinds of dinosaur sculptures.  These cost just twenty-five cents.  Sinclair gas stations sold bags of M-A-R dinosaurs for forty- nine cents. 

In addition to the Sinclair Oil Company, Disney, Pepsi, and other organizations had M-A-R machines at the World’s Fair.[17]  These other machines produced sculptures that included Disney figures, presidential busts, N.A.S.A.’s Space Lab and Project Mercury space capsule, and dolphins.[18]  Mold-A-Rama™ vending machines were popular at zoos, bus depots, train stations, airports, arcades, and shops. [19] 

By 1964, there were M-A-R vending machines manufacturing Disney figurines at Disneyland; busts of Abraham Lincoln at Springfield, Illinois; and religious figurines at the Vatican.[20]  Mold-A-Rama™ machines were also prominent at the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal, Expo ‘67.[21] 

A.R.A. decided to shut down Mold-A-Rama, Inc.  [That parent company evolved into Aramark.]  At that point, the M-A-R machines became orphans, so to speak. 

One employee of the original Mold-A-Rama, Inc., Roy Ward, acquired several of the machines, as well as the right to operate the machines at the Brookfield Zoo and the Museum of Science and Industry.    His wife, Doris Ward, was a secretary at Interstate United, and on the eve of her retirement, her boss, William A. Jones, a Michigan State University graduate who was working as a supervising accountant, expressed interest in purchasing the M-A-R machines from Roy, and she replied that she and Roy had considered selling them the previous night.[22] 

After William A. Jones worked with Roy Ward over weekends for a year-and-a-half, he purchased the M-A-R machines on April 22, A.D. 1971 and formed the William A. Jones Company (WAJCO).  Another small business owner who kept M-A-R machines in operation was Paul Nathanson of Minnesota.  He was one of the original franchise owners who worked with A.R.A. 

Jones and Nathanson began to cooperate for the purpose of acquiring custom-made parts.  Nathanson had several accounts and owned more M-A-R machines than Jones.  In the early 1980s, Nathanson decided he wanted to get out of the business and Jones bought him out in 1985.[23]  Jones tripled the number of M-A-R machines he had when he purchased a total of fifty-five M-A-R machines from Nathanson and doubled his sales.[24]  Thus, William A. (“Bill”) Jones, Sr. became the largest operator of Mold-A-Rama™ machines in the Midwest. 

He brought his sons, Paul Jones and Bill Jones, Jr. in to help him run WAJCO. The most popular M-A-R vending machine WAJCO had by far was the one that produces dolphins at the Brookfield Zoo.[25]  The Jones family explained to the Chicago Tribune’s Eric Benderoff in 2006 that at the peak of the summer season, it produced 350 sculptures per day.[26] 

Bill Jones, Sr. and Paul Jones also explained to Benderoff that all of the M-A-R machines at The Field Museum produced dinosaurs.[27]  There had been one that produced gorillas (which I imagine was a reference to Bushman, the popular Lincoln Park Zoo gorilla whose mounted remains have been on display at The Field Museum for over half a century) but when sales fell off they replaced it with one that produced Tyrannosaurus rexes (which was undoubtedly a reference to Sue).[28] 

Bill Jones, Sr.’s favorite M-A-R machine, out of the sixty-eight he had in operation in 2006 across the Midwest and in Texas, was the one that produced U-505 models at the Museum of Science and Industry.[29]  That was his son Paul’s favorite one, too.  “But I have a different reason,” he told Benderoff.[30]  “That machine has few problems I have to fix.”[31] 

In 2011, WAJCO re-branded as the second Mold-A-Rama, Inc.  Unfortunately, in 2014, Bill Jones, Junior passed away at the age of fifty-three. 

The next year, his father chose to go into semi-retirement.  Today, Mold-A-Rama, Inc. operates sixty-three Mold-A-Rama™ machines in facilities spread across five states.  One needs not go to all of those facilities to buy a M-A-R figures. 

On the Website of Mold-A-Rama, Inc., one can purchase all the figures currently being manufactured by M-A-R machines, plus some surplus figures such as an orange Frankenstein’s monster (identified as the “Standing Monster,” for some reason).  In addition to selling M-A-R figures, the company also sells M-A-R-themed apparel, magnets, keychains, pins, Christmas tree ornaments, and stickers.

Credit: Heid Peters, Museum of Science and Industry Caption: These are Mold-A-Rama™ sculptures are a gray jetfighter, a black steam locomotive, a red Chicago skyline, a dark gray U-505 submarine, and a green tractor.

Credit: Heid Peters, Museum of Science and Industry Caption: This is a different assembly of the Mold-A-Rama™ sculptures as in the picture above – the gray jetfighter, a black steam locomotive, a red Chicago skyline, a dark gray U-505 submarine, and a green tractor – that gives a sense of depth.  Mold-A-Rama™ sculptures are three-dimensional objects that belong on a shelf.

Credit: Heid Peters, Museum of Science and Industry This is a green tractor that the Mold-A-Rama™ machine in the Farm Tech exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry produces most of the year.[32] Farm Tech is on the Lower Level (ground floor) in the Museum of Science and Industry’s Central Pavilion.

Credit: Heid Peters, Museum of Science and Industry Caption: This red Mold-A-Rama™ Chicago skyline sculpture is made by a Mold-A-Rama™ machine at the Museum of Science and Industry, but I do not know in which exhibit the relevant machine is located.

Credit: Heid Peters, Museum of Science and Industry Caption: This black steam locomotive Mold-A-Rama™ sculpture is made in a Mold-A-Rama™ machine in the Transportation Gallery near the 999 Steam Locomotive, on the Main Level in the Museum of Science and Industry’s Central Pavilion.

Credit: Heid Peters, Museum of Science and Industry Caption: This Mold-A-Rama™ sculpture is a gray jetfighter.  The Mold-A-Rama™ machine that produces it is in the Transportation Gallery, on the Balcony in the Museum of Science and Industry’s Central Pavilion.

Credit: Heid Peters, Museum of Science and Industry Caption: This Mold-A-Rama™ sculpture is a dark gray replica of the U-505 submarine.  The real U-505 is a German Navy attack submarine, a U.S. Navy war prize, and a museum ship.

Credit: Heid Peters, Museum of Science and Industry Caption: This is the Mold-A-Rama™ machine that produces Mold-A-Rama™ replicas of the U-505.  It is in the U-505 exhibit gallery.

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Museum Entry (general admission) tickets are $21.95 for adults and $12.95 for children (three-to-eleven), and free for Museum Members.  This covers the Mold-A-Rama™ exhibit and most permanent exhibits, including the Zephyr, Science Storms, You! The Experience, the Ships Gallery, Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle, The Great Train Story, Numbers in Nature: A Mirror Maze, and walking around (but not through) the U-505.

Museum Entry also covers Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light, which will open in a few weeks, on Wednesday, November 16, A.D. 2022.  This will be the 80th Christmas Around the World festival, as the first was held in 1942.

Tickets for Giant Dome Theater movies are $12 for adults and $9 for children, and free or discounted for Members.  The same is true for Coal Mine Tours, Fab Lab workshops, and Dissect an Eye workshops in the Education Lab.  For the U-505 On-Board Tour, tickets are $18 for adults, $14 for children, $17 for Adult Members, and $13 for Child Members.

The Art of the Brick has been extended by popular demand through January 16, A.D. 2023.  Tickets for this traveling exhibit are $14 for adults, $11 for children, and $7 for Members.

The Museum of Science and Industry is sometimes stylized as the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago and as the Museum of Science + Industry, Chicago.  One of the Museums in the Park, it is situated in the northeast corner of the Chicago Park District’s Jackson Park in East Hyde Park, a neighborhood along the shoreline in the Hyde Park Community Area on the South Side of Chicago. The Museum of Science and Industry is housed in the Palace of Fine Arts, the last pavilion left standing in Jackson Park from the White City fairgrounds of Chicago’s first World’s Fair, the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893).

It sits at the southwest corner of 57th Drive and DuSable Lake Shore Drive.  [In 2020, the Chicago City Council voted to tack DuSable in front of Lake Shore Drive.]  One southbound lane of DuSable Lake Shore Drive is closed from 57th Drive to Hayes Drive due to roadway work related to the construction of the Obama Presidential Center.

The address is 5700 South DuSable Lake Shore Drive.  The phone number is (773) 684-1414. The Website is https://www.msichicago.org/.

The M.S.I. is open most days from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., but it is open later during summertime and Christmastime, and other busy periods.  It is closed on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day/the First Day of Christmas. 

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ENDNOTES


[1] “A History of The Mold-A-Rama,” The Weir Times & The Cocheco Times, 25 May, 2015, p. 25

[2] Dennis Cooper, “Mold-A-Rama Day,” (https://denniscooperblog.com/mold-a-rama-day/) Accessed 11/20/17

[3] “A History of The Mold-A-Rama,” The Weir Times, 25 May, 2015, p. 25

[4] Don O’Brien, “Author coming to Quincy to find out more about J.H. Miller Co.,” Herald-Whig, 19 April, 2013 (http://www.whig.com/story/22023147/author-coming-to-quincy-to-find-out-more-about-jh-miller-co#) Accessed 11/20/17

See also “The J.H. Miller Company,” Rodney’s Dimestore Gallery

(http://rodneysdimestoregallery.com/j_h__miller_company) Accessed 11/20/17

[5] O’Brien

[6] “A History of The Mold-A-Rama,” The Weir Times, 25 May, 2015, p. 25

Dennis Cooper, “Mold-A-Rama Day,” (https://denniscooperblog.com/mold-a-rama-day/) Accessed 11/20/17

[7] “A History of The Mold-A-Rama,” The Weir Times, 25 May, 2015, p. 25

[8] “A History of The Mold-A-Rama,” The Weir Times, 25 May, 2015, p. 25

Dennis Cooper, “Mold-A-Rama Day,” (https://denniscooperblog.com/mold-a-rama-day/) Accessed 11/20/17

[9] “A History of The Mold-A-Rama,” The Weir Times, 25 May, 2015, p. 25

[10] “A History of The Mold-A-Rama,” The Weir Times, 25 May, 2015, p. 25

[11] “A History of The Mold-A-Rama,” The Weir Times, 25 May, 2015, p. 25

[12] Steve Johnson, “Smelly, plastic and nostalgic, Mold-A-Rama celebrates 50th birthday at Brookfield Zoo” Chicago Tribune, 17 August, 2016 (http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-mold-a-rama-50th-birthday-20160817-story.html) Accessed 11/20/17

[13] Dennis Cooper, “Mold-A-Rama Day,” (https://denniscooperblog.com/mold-a-rama-day/) Accessed 11/20/17

[14] Ibid

[15] Bernadette Johnson, “How Mold-A-Rama Works,” How Stuff Works, p. 2

(https://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/mold-a-rama1.htm) Accessed 11/20/17

[16] “Mold-Rama Draws ‘Em,” Billboard, 12 December, 1964, p. 43

[17] “A History of The Mold-A-Rama,” The Weir Times, 25 May, 2015, p. 25

[18] “A History of The Mold-A-Rama,” The Weir Times, 25 May, 2015, p. 25

[19] “Mold-Rama Draws ‘Em,” Billboard, 12 December, 1964, p. 43

[20] “Mold-Rama Draws ‘Em,” Billboard, 12 December, 1964, p. 43

[21] “A History of The Mold-A-Rama,” The Weir Times, 25 May, 2015, p. 25

[22] John Fecile, “Mold-A-Rama-Rama! The Secrets Behind Chicago’s Plastic Souvenir Empire,” WBEZ 91.5 Chicago, 13 November, 2015 (https://www.wbez.org/shows/wbez-news/mold-a-rama-rama-the-secrets-behind-chicagos-plastic-souvenir-empire/0cdbea6b-d991-420a-9a3e-62dcc0c072d1) Accessed 11/21/17

[23] Eric Benderoff, “Old technology proves a modern-day classic,” Chicago Tribune, 4 September, 2006

[24] Eric Benderoff, “Old technology proves a modern-day classic,” Chicago Tribune, 4 September, 2006

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid

[32] The reason I wrote “most of the year” is because I recall at least one year that Mold-A-Rama™ machine in the Farm exhibit (now called Farm Tech) was re-purposed to produce Santa Claus figures during Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light.

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